The Music of America
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
SONY 88697 70636 2 [186:08]
Full tracklist at end of review
Like it or not John Williams has dominated silver-screen culture since the 1990s. His cinema music is often the film; the film is often the music. There is a concert dimension to his work as there was also for his great idols - Rozsa, Korngold, Waxman and Herrmann. On this album we encounter both faces and realise there is no great chasm between them.
Discs 1 and 2 address the concert hall world with the occasional departure. The third takes us on an exhilarating romp through the film music firmament - a world he has sent spinning and glittering. Williams has a marvellously piercing emotive touch that cuts through even a pachyderm's insensitivity. I recall for example coming out of a 1998 cinema showing of Saving Private Ryan with tears streaming down my face: the music and images intensify each other.
Air and Simple Gifts was written for the Obama inauguration and is laid out for cello, piano, violin and clarinet. It keys into the same material that gripped Copland but imparts to it the fruity density of Howells' Piano Quartet. American Journey is a series of touching and sometimes portentous vignettes of the history of the USA. There's a dash of Copland in Popular Entertainment and of Saving Private Ryan in Immigration and Building and Flight and Technology, of Glass and Reich in Arts and Sports. The two worlds come into an even more candid collision - or collusion - in the Suite for Memoirs of a Geisha in which Yo-Yo Ma is soloist - such is John Williams' pull. The writing is roundedly impassioned. Ma's cello is wonderfully sonorous and singingly delicate in Going to School. It is an engrossingly fine score, full of delicate effects that steer well clear of kitsch Chinoiserie. The Song for World Peace - now there's a gauntlet thrown down. It is in fact a slow and satisfying evolutionary ascent to majestic heights.
Summon the Heroes has the odd drum salvo and brass blast redolent of a certain Copland Fanfare. It all works well and there is something of the Superman score to it too. Odd that the Utah Symphony are conducted by the composer for Hymn to New England - it’s another skilled fanfare relieved by soft contoured undulating string writing. Sound The Bells is another eager and dazzlingly bright fanfare piece.
The Five Sacred Trees is a fine bassoon concerto - a sort of Celtic counterpart to The Geisha suite written at a time when things Celtic were in the ascendant: from Riverdance to Titanic. Craeb Uisnig and Dathi have a considerable insurgency of dissonance which we will again encounter on CD 3 in Born on the Fourth of July and the music for Close Encounters.
Elegy is a short heartfelt piece, here played by Yo-Yo Ma. It is in Geisha Suite mode. It’s a fine addition to the concert repertoire; any cellist contender for BBC Young Musician of the Year and similar should consider it as a contest piece.
The game and indefatigable Mission Theme will be known to Americans as the music for NBC Nightly News. March from the quirky film 1941 is Yankee-doodle rambunctious and not short on brazen confidence. The Olympic Spirit embodies the surging flag-waving of the stadium and especially the spectacle of the opening ceremonies.
This disc is the deliverer of instant and usually uncomplicated enjoyment. While Williams clearly does obeisance to Herrmann’s North by North-West in Jaws and to Holst’s Planets in the Star Wars main title, his musical wizardry delivers time after time. Elite orchestras directed by the composer are everywhere and that's also true for the harmonica-dominated score for Sugarland Express. Toots Thielemans brings out the down-South and dirty Galahadry of the music reminiscent of a composer we never hear of these days: Bill Russo. Russo had at least two major pieces on DG LPs in the 1970s. The Flying Theme is done broadly and with intoxicating eagerness - a touch of Disney here, I fancy. The suite of three movements from Born on the Fourth of July is from a deeper, tougher vein with the gears of disillusion fully engaged cog by cog. Oily dissonance is strongly drawn in as it is also in the Ligeti-style Close Encounters. Perlman's version of the theme from Schindler's List is all throaty emotion - old gold glowing in auburn embers. A quick outing from the Theme from Jurassic Park has Williams taking us from still and unprepossessing ruminations into that broad optimism-loaded string hymn which he took onwards to a further peak in Saving Private Ryan. Cadillac of the Skies from Empire of the Sun comes complete with angelic choir here provided by the Bostonians rather than by Hollywood. The rambunctious Raiders March is wild and woolly with its Waltonian eddies and under-currents. More of the similar in The Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars - total immersion. It is perhaps a little cheese-cakey in its revelling in victory of the worthy over the wicked. Hats off to one of film music’s Greats: John Williams. Here's to the next 100 films.
CD 1 66:00
Air and Simple Gifts
Song for World Peace
CD 2 68:22
Summon the Heroes (for Tim Morrison)
Hymn to New England
The Five Sacred Trees (Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra)
Sound the Bells!
Elegy for Cello and Orchestra
The Mission Theme (Theme for NBC News)
March from 1941
The Olympic Spirit
Main Title from Star Wars
Theme from Jaws
Theme from Sugarland Express
Flying Theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Suite from Born on the Fourth of July
Theme from Schindler's List
Theme from Jurassic Park
Cadillac of the Skies from Empire of the Sun (Voice)
Raiders of the Lost Ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind/When You Wish Upon a Star Medley; Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Excerpts) When You Wish Upon A Star (interpolated) Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars